Saturday, October 16, 2010

Media decides what’s news

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a made-in-media society, what is deemed to be 'national' and what is doomed to be 'parochial' is an editorial choice, shaped by personal-cum-political preferences and, at times, commercial considerations.

I cannot fault the media for celebrating the non-failure of the Commonwealth Games as a spectacular national achievement that should concern every Indian from Badarpur to Bhagalpur. "National news" in India tends to be woefully Delhi-centric and not least after the taxpayers had shelled out nearly Rs 1lakh crore (yes, I am informed that is likely to be the final bill) to uphold the pride of Delhi. And, naturally, Delhi's pride is the nation's pride since—as an editor wrote on Saturday—only Delhi has the credentials to host an international event of this magnitude: the rest of India, presumably, lacks the qualities of international greatness.

India's expensive route to greatness was naturally the Big News of the fortnight. The good and the bad news of the CWG from filthy bathrooms and Lalit Bhanot to the Indian women 4x400 metres relay team and two enforced public holidays overshadowed most of the past fortnight's other developments apart, predictably, from Test cricket. Even bizarre inclusion of Rahul Gandhi in Suresh Kalmadi's thank you list for deigning to watch some events as an ordinary spectator wasglossed over in embarrassing silence.

The preoccupation with the CWG as India's only news resulted in many casualties. They included the Ayodhya verdict, the campaign for the Bihar elections, the political drama in Karnataka and yet another spectacular electoral triumph of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Ayodhya was quietly relegated to the lower orders of the news hierarchy because India had "moved on", the euphemism for the angry realisation that the "rule of law" does not follow the voodoo scholarship of the History faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Where yesterday there was a media clamour to let the courts decide, there were now mutterings of disquiet about faith having hijacked law. Yet, the disquiet was too abstruse for easy public digestion. Nevertheless, there were flashes of anger becoming unmanageable. If some saffron-robed pontiff had dared suggest that the High Court verdict was akin to "panchayati" justice, he would have been hung, drawn, quartered and his intestines fed to the dogs while he watched. But since the opinion was proffered in eloquent, idiomatic English, it was viewed indulgently as a robust critique of a judgment, a part of the legitimate democratic discourse.

The fall of the BJP's southern bastion should also have made big news, if only to celebrate the end of an aberration. After all, until a few years ago, it was conventional wisdom of the editorial classes that Hindu nationalism was too tied up with Hindi nationalism to penetrate the Vindhyas. However, the clumsy Governor H.R. Bharadwaj muddied the waters of what should have been a one-sided outpouring of moral indignation. In the end, the collective editorial judgment was that Bengaluru was just too far away from Delhi.

Jammu and Kashmir could have filled in the void. After all, it is an obsessive concern of those who have carved out their professional reputations through a ruthless exploitation of angst. But two factors argued against the restoration of the "troubled Valley" to the headlines. First, it was felt to be bad form to highlight this unending hiccup at a time when there just too much international gaze on India. However, more important, I get the distinct impression that Middle India hasn't taken too kindly to the lachrymose celebration of the "legitimate grievances" of those who make it their business to rubbish India and everything it stands for. I may well be wrong, but the liberal deification of the Hurriyat Conference isn't appreciated beyond the editorial offices.

This left only one item of news that ended up being completely disregarded: Modi's spectacular sweep of the Gujarat civic body elections. Of India's numerous Chief Ministers, there have been only three who have gone from strength to strength, winning every electoral test: Sikkim's Pawan Kumar Chamling, Orissa's Naveen Patnaik and Gujarat's Narendra Modi. Sikkim is too small to feature on the radar of Delhi; Patnaik has drawing room acceptability but remains a reclusive enigma; and the mere mention of Modi's name is enough to send anchors and editors into delirious frenzy. Yet, had Modi suffered a setback, I have no doubt that every channel and most newspapers would have made an extra effort to highlight the people of Gujarat as another amorphous mass, along with India's sports men and women, who have done India proud. However, since the vote went along predictable lines, it was buried in the 'News in brief' section, along with the bus accident in Uttarakhand and the Delhi belly of the Australian and English swimmers.

Maybe the fault lies with Modi for refusing to be intimidated by those who want to keep the awful memories of sectarian conflict alive at all costs. Maybe Modi shouldn't win so many elections and should concede a victory to the Congress just to break the monotony. Yet, I don't think these will resolve the problems. Modi's problem is that he has been a success in his state both politically and as an administrator. He has retained the trust of the people of Gujarat without genuflecting at the altar of mediacracy: the class that has by sheer default become India's real electors, the Emperor with no clothes.

Sunday Pioneer, October 17, 2010


MangoMan said...

Wow!! you just savaged the Mahishasurs of Delhi. May Devi Durga give more powers to you.
Happy Vijaya Dashami!!

Anonymous said...

Great Article! Particularly like the way you talked about how the media would have gone to town had the BJP underperformed in Gujarat.

A small point of order - arguably, you could add Shiela Dikshit to list of CMs who have gone from strength to strength. Though outcome of CWG probe is awaited and could bring bad news for her, she is the sole reason for Congress' repeated success in Delhi over last 10 years - Delhi and AP under late YSR were the only 2 places sycophantic congressmen couldnt attribute every success to the Gandhi Parivar.

Anonymous said...

Damn good Article.